Saturday, October 21, 2017

Petition Boy Scouts to include nontheists

Message from the Secular Coalition for America:

The Boy Scouts of America Charter and ByLaws says: "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." No child should ever feel that they are less good, less worthy, or less capable to lead or "grow into the best kind of citizen" because they do not subscribe to religion. We know that the best kind of citizens are those who respect all people, of all faiths and no faith. The religiously unaffiliated is now the largest "religious group" in the country and our numbers are strongest among young people. We will no longer stay quiet and let organizations like the Boy Scouts tell us and our children that we cannot be moral upstanding citizens without God. With your help and your voice, we will change hearts, minds, and policy. Please help us continue to raise awareness about this issue by signing and then sharing this petition http://p2a.co/UhRsQLF with your friends and family, especially parents who may be considering Boy Scouts of America for their children. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Federal judge declares higher power must be deity

By Mathew Goldstein

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer recently ruled that the House chaplain’s refusal to allow an atheist to deliver the morning prayer complies with the Equal Protection Clause.

The dispute dates to February 2015, when Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, invited one of his constituents, Dan Barker, to deliver the invocation as a Congressional guest. The office of Catholic House Chaplain Patrick Conroy informed Barker that all guest chaplains must be “ordained by a recognized body in the faith in which he/she practices” and must present a copy of their ordination certificate as proof. He also advised that the invocation must address a “higher power.”

Barker had retained his 1975 ordination as a means to officiate at weddings to bypass discriminatory laws that restrict marriage officiants to clergy. Barker submitted his ordination certificate to Conroy’s office. He said he believes there is no higher power than “we, the people of these United States.” Conroy did not respond for almost one year, until January 2016. He then informed Barker he was denying his request to give the invocation because he had publicly announced his atheism.  

Mr. Barker, the co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, consulted a lawyer and sued the Chaplain, and Speaker Paul Ryan, in May 2016. He claimed his exercise of religion rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were violated. Judge Collyer concluded this argument fails: "Taking as true Mr. Barker’s allegations that atheism is his religion and assuming, but not finding, that RFRA applies to the House, the court finds Mr. Barker has failed adequately to allege a claim under RFRA because he fails to allege a substantial burden". She went on to explain that a substantial burden “exists when government action puts ‘substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.’”  

Government authorities demand that Mr. Barker modify his belief based behavior as a condition for qualifying to participate in a government sponsored activity is a substantial demand. But the "pressure" was insubstantial in the sense that not participating in this activity is relatively easy, much easier than changing beliefs and related behaviors. This reflects the fact that the activity at issue, Congressional sponsored invocation, is itself unnecessary. Congress can perform all of its functions, and lawmakers can voluntarily pray before each session begins, without an opening prayer ritual or a paid chaplain.

Meanwhile, atheists lose an opportunity to gain publicity for themselves by giving any invocations. More significantly, and insidiously, to the extent the laws favor theism there is a resulting diffuse pressure being applied against atheism. Laws endorsing government sponsored theism communicate to the public that there are two tiers of beliefs regarding deity under the laws. There are theists who will leverage any privilege that they think they are granted, and entitled to, under the laws to act against public expressions of atheism or criticisms of theism.

Barker also cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which declared that governments cannot discriminate between different beliefs when selecting who gives government sponsored invocations, to support his legal challenge. Collyer, oddly, declared that the ruling didn’t apply to Barker because the justices did not cite atheists in that particular decision. “To decide that Mr. Barker was discriminated against and should be permitted to address the House would be to disregard the Supreme Court precedent that permits legislative prayer,” the judge said.

Judge Collyer is singling out atheists for the negative purpose of refusing to apply an otherwise generally applicable civil rights protection that the Supreme Court recently reasserted. She is inserting a 'discriminate against atheists' clause into the law. Atheists lack generally applicable civil rights protections unless the Supreme Court explicitly says otherwise, according to Collyer.

Insofar as it is true that government sponsored legislative invocation is, by default, for theists only, as Collyer dubiously claims, it follows that the practice of legislative invocation itself violates the constitution for favoring theism over atheism and discriminating against atheist citizens. But legislative invocation was initiated during the first congress and declaring it unconstitutional would be difficult. Therefore, judges who are committed to the constitution and its civic equality protections should be defining legislative invocation as open to people of all beliefs, include those who believe that there is no deity to speak to. This would be easy to do and, contrary to what Collyer says, would not conflict with Supreme Court rulings.

Congress is a place where people occasionally say something that others who are present and listening disagree with, so what is the problem? An opening Congressional invocation by Dan Barker that does not cite deity is not going to infringe on anyone else's rights. Barker, not surprisingly, said he is disappointed with the ruling, complaining that it allowed the House chaplain’s ”personal biases against the nonreligious” to block him from fully participating in our government. I agree.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The redistricting method of the future

Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission
Office of Governor Larry Hogan

Honorable members of the Redistricting Reform Commission:

Maryland law says: "Each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions." Census tracts average about 4000 people, but in Maryland some census tracts have 24000 people. There are currently 1394 census tracts for about 5.8 million people. A Senate district is currently sized at 123,000 people +/- 4.7%. There are about 30 tracts per Senate district.

These numbers are well suited for mathematical optimization. The general idea is to define the redistricting task as sets of constraints and one or more optimization goals that are precisely defined as equations. Some optimization methods require a single optimization equation. Combining multiple optimization goals that are represented by different units of measurement can be a complication. It is possible to utilize multiple optimization goals that are represented by a common measure, such as a percentage, to avoid this complication.

The more goals there are the greater the risk that different goals will conflict with each other. The tighter the constraints the more likely that there will be no feasible solution. Therefore, it is preferable for the number of different optimization goals to be low or be selected to be non-conflicting and to take precautions that ensure the constraints are realistic.

Contiguity is a constraint. A maximum count of district boundaries crossing significant political subdivisions and natural boundaries are additional constraints. The Redistricting Reform Commission is proposing a maximum +/- 1% population variance which could be implemented as another constraint. Maximum compactness can be the optimization goal, or compactness could be combined with minimum population variance as the optimization goal.

Viable optimization algorithms for redistricting are heuristics that obtain a good result quickly. This is because redistricting optimization is technically a very difficult problem to solve given the vast number of possible solutions. Different software on different computers with different optimization algorithms will produce different results. These different results can be ranked by the optimization goals equation. This presents an opportunity to implement redistricting as a contest. Competitors can be given instructions for how to submit redistricting map proposals. The earliest submitted redistricting map that generated the highest optimization score while meeting all constraints would be automatically adopted. As an incentive the winning proposal could receive a cash award.

Compactness can be measured by boundary shape. Or by the degree to which the district spreads from a central core, called "dispersion". Or by housing patterns, which is sometimes referred to as population compactness. District tendrils are less meaningful in sparsely populated areas but more meaningful where the population is densely packed. The ratio of the proposed district's perimeter and the perimeter of a circle with the same area size is an example of a boundary shape measure of compactness.

Members of the Redistricting Reform Commission should consult with the computer science and mathematics departments at universities and colleges, particular those that offer graduate degrees in Operations Research, for expert advice. Examples of automated computer redistricting, some with free source code, are available on the Internet (http://www.publicmapping.org/, http://bdistricting.com/2010/, http://autoredistrict.org/, https://sourceforge.net/projects/bard/, and https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/redist/index.html). Applicable algorithms include polygonal clustering, graph partitioning, simulated annealing, and tabu search, among others. Spatial contiguity can be formulated in a mixed integer programming framework, so mathematical programming methods may also be viable.

The district boundaries after each census could be very different from the prior boundaries, which can contribute to making elections more competitive. The result of relying on mathematical optimization for redistricting will be gerrymander free and fair by the "justice is blind" standard. There is no need for a redistricting committee. A voting rights committee composed of former judges could be responsible for splitting some Senate districts into two or three Delegate districts to try to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Currently the Delegate districts are three member by default but with 16 one member and 12 two member districts that are not publicly explained. The Governor's Redistricting Reform Commission is recommending one member Delegate districts by default with fewer exceptions. However, one member Delegate districts give each citizen fewer representatives assigned to different committees which weakens citizens' influence over the bills. The committee votes on bills are more important than the floor votes because bills that fail in committee almost always die and bills approved in committee usually also pass when they go to floor vote. The small size of single member Delegate districts risks rendering a +/- 1% population variance constraint along with the other constraints impossible. Also, one member Delegate districts undermines Maryland's ability to demonstrate compliance with the Voting Rights Act because occasionally merging Delegate districts is unlikely to increase minority representation. 

It may be better to retain the current three member Delegate district default and require that all exceptions be justified in writing as promoting increased minority representation in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. Alternatively, mathematical optimization could draw three Delegate districts in each Senate district but with somewhat different constraints and optimization goals then were utilized to draw the Senate districts. In particular, the optimization goal could be revised to prioritize meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and the constraints could be loosened for those Senate districts that have a demographic profile which introduce Voting Rights Act compliance concerns. Dividing each Senate district into three Delegate districts could be a contest for finding the best redistricting map. This would create a two phase redistricting process, Senate districts first, Delegate districts second, that will increase the time needed to complete redistricting.

Federal redistricting standards are somewhat different from the state standards.  Also, Congressional districts effect the national election and thus are no longer only about the state of Maryland. If Maryland stops gerrymandering Congressional districts while Republican states continue to gerrymander then the next federal elections results will be more favorable for Republicans. It is more likely that a General Assembly redistricting reform bill will be enacted if it is not paired with Congressional redistricting. Therefore, it would be better for the Governor's office and lawmakers to place Congressional redistricting reform proposals into a separate bill, or postpone Congressional redistricting reform until after a multi-state reform collaboration effort that crosses the partisan divide is arranged. 

Mathematical optimization is the redistricting method of the future. Reliable enabling technology is available. Maryland has people with the skills needed to implement automated redistricting. I appeal to the Commission and state lawmakers to seriously consider mathematical optimization for redistricting.

Mathew Goldstein

Friday, October 06, 2017

Religion sometimes threatens civil liberties and rule of law

By Mathew Goldstein

The Justice Department claims that the free exercise of religion clause of the first amendment to our constitution includes the freedom to act as one's religion demands even when such actions curtail the civil rights of others or conflict with the laws.  This threatens the rights of countless Americans, particularly religious minorities and nontheists.  We see this in the recent executive order granting employers the option to omit contraceptive coverage from employer sponsored health insurance plans.  We see this in the recent Justice Department amicus brief supporting a baker who refused to provide a same gender couple with a marriage cake.  If free exercise of religion is not limited by civil rights protections, or generally applicable laws with good secular justifications, then where is the stopping line?  How does a judge decide that a free exercise claim goes too far?

It is difficult to fathom how a business that is owned by holders of publicly traded stock can be said to worship a deity, or posses a religious belief, let alone exercise a religion.  A way to avoid this difficulty has been to limit the applicability of free exercise claims to privately owned and "closely held" business.  In a private ownership context the business is deemed to be a vehicle through which the business owners practice their religion.  Donald Trump's recent executive order exempting businesses from including contraceptive coverage in health plans dispensed with this publicly owned versus privately owned distinction.  This will provoke lawsuits because it is so unprecedentedly broad.

The approach taken by this Republican party administration, and to some extent by the Republican party more generally, favors allowing businesses to refuse to sell products or services to, and maybe also refuse to hire or promote, individuals who do not respect whatever false beliefs, or unjustified limits on behavior, the business decides to impose on its customers or employees in the name of exercising any of the many religions. The Justice Department now appears to be arguing that a federal contractor should be able to refuse to provide services to people, including in emergencies, without risk of losing federal contracts and that organizations which were prohibited from requiring all of their employees to follow the tenets of the organization's faith should instead be able to discriminate against such employees.

An obvious problem with interpretations of free exercise of religion that privileges religious beliefs over other beliefs is that religious beliefs are themselves contradicted by religious beliefs so that there is no way to adjudicate between conflicting free exercise claims without denying someone their free exercise of their religion.  Another problem with privileging religious beliefs is that there is a lack of proper justification for the laws treating opposing beliefs differently.  If person P1 claims X is their religious belief and person P2 claims ~X is their corresponding anti-religious belief then why should the law favor X over ~X?  

We already know whose free exercise of religion will be disadvantaged if judges are required to resolve clashes between conflicting beliefs.  The free exercise of religion by employers will triumph over that of employees and customers.  Otherwise, the adherents of the smaller, less wealthy, less popular, less organized, less zealous, religion, or the religion that the judge disfavors, will partially lose free exercise of their religion. 

Free exercise is a meritorious and viable legal principle when it functions as a general protection against government repression of religions, provided that it is subordinate to civil rights equity principles and to laws that are evidenced to promote human welfare, regardless of employer, employee, or customer status.  The resulting secular laws may sometimes conflict with religiously motivated practices.  In that case the religious practices lose.  Interfering with religious practices is not a secular goal, it is a last resort from practical necessity.

It is not difficult to understand why some religious people who are convinced that their religion is both factually true and important object when their religious motivated practice is being restricted to accommodate those who have contrary beliefs or to respect secular laws. Insofar as our laws conflict with religious beliefs, those religious beliefs are arguably being disadvantaged, and therefore we should not be surprised if some people react negatively.  Secular democratic government depends, at least to some extent, and arguably to a large extent, upon the citizenry being, at least to some extent, secular.  

Accordingly, people who value secularism should argue publicly for secular government, but by itself that will not suffice.  We also need to argue more generally against religion as an arbiter of the facts about how the world works because the inability of religion to identify facts about how the world works is the reason that laws should be secular instead of religious.  If it were otherwise, if religion was a valid method for determining how the world works (if our universe was supernatural) then our laws should be religious instead of secular.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Big Questions of Philosophy by David K. Johnson

By Mathew Goldstein

David K. Johnson is a professor of philosophy at Kings College in Pennsylvania who produced a Great Courses series of videos titled The Big Questions of Philosophy that sells for about $70 dollars (less for audio, more for DVD).  Some county government library systems have contracted with a company that sponsors a web site, and also an app, called kanopy.  Kanopy makes many videos available for free to people with library cards.  At least some, if not most, of those videos do not appear to be very good.  But among the many hundreds of free videos on kanopy is the entire set of 36 half hour lectures of the aforementioned course.   

He is probably not as rich, nor as famous, as George Soros whose book features five of his philosophy lectures.  After watching Professor Johnson's first five lectures, and excerpts from a few other lectures, I will take a chance on him and recommend his videos.  This is the philosophy 101 course that should be included with everyone's basic education but not everyone receives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Soros Lectures at the Central European University, by George Soros



Reviewed by Bill Creasy


With most intellectuals, you can ask: If they are so smart, why aren't they rich? You can't say that about George Soros. He has made a fortune by trading currencies, most famously making $1 billion in a single day. This book begins with his short biography, and Soros is also a frustrated philosopher, having studied under Karl Popper. He went into finance when the philosophy job didn't work out. Recently, he has concentrated on philanthropy and has returned to philosophy.

He claims in this short book, made up of 5 university lectures, that his understanding of philosophy gave him an edge for successful trading. The first lecture discusses the basis of his two important ideas, and the other chapters apply them to current issues. The lectures were given in Oct. 2009, so a major theme is to discuss the problems that caused the 2008 financial crisis. The audio and video of the lectures are available on his website, www.soros.org.

His two ideas are direct challenges to prevailing assumptions of economics and other social sciences. The ideas seem obvious in some ways, but are also important in trying to explain social events.

The first idea is called "fallibility" by Soros. It is based on the fact that human beings have imperfect knowledge and reasoning about reality. Classical economics assumes a state of equilibrium from participants who have enough knowledge about a situation to make rational decisions. Soros says that this assumption is false. Imperfect information affects not only decisions, but also gives rise to simplified and simplistic approximations, rules of thumb, political slogans, generalizations, and moral precepts. Peoples' use of these simple rules cause imperfect responses to uncertain situations. This doesn't justify the postmodern statement that there isn't any real objective information. Soros thinks there is valuable information, but there is usually not enough information to fully characterize economic events.

Soros discusses the idea of a "fertile fallacy." This is an idea that can be wrong or flawed but can still lead to productive actions in the correct direction. He says, “We are capable of acquiring knowledge, but we can never have enough knowledge to allow us to base all of our decisions on knowledge. It follows that if a piece of knowledge has proved useful, we are liable to overexploit it and extend it to areas where it no longer applies, so that it becomes a fallacy.” For example (my example, not his), "liberty and justice for all" is a fertile fallacy. Liberty and justice are always in tension, because one person's liberty can lead to someone else's injustice. But the slogan can still lead people towards an ideal of a freer society with a fairer legal system. He says, “Fertile fallacies are...the equivalent of bubbles in financial markets.”

Soros's other idea is called "reflexivity," and it is more complex. The purpose of social science is to observe patterns or develop hypotheses about social behavior in a passive way. But as soon as a pattern is observed, human beings immediately try to exploit the observation to their own benefit, in an active, manipulating way. The active manipulation can change or even completely destroy the pattern!

This effect can explain the 2008 financial crisis to some degree. (The following is my condensed version of an explanation, which Soros discusses in more abstract terms.) Prior to 2000, mortgage loans were considered to be extremely safe investments. The mortgages were based on real property, and people were generally conscientious about paying for their houses. However, large financial institutions saw this simple rule and exploited it. They tried to sell as many mortgages as they could and combine them into "risk-free" securities. Many new houses were built and sold to generate more mortgages. The result was that mortgages were given to people who couldn't afford to pay for them. The surplus of houses and foreclosures caused a glut of housing, making prices fall so the amounts of existing mortgages were larger than the value of the property. The actions by the financial institutions changed mortgages from a safe investment to a risky one that has cost them a lot of money.

It would be nice if the crisis was over. But the current European financial problem is from other "safe" loans: sovereign debt, or loans to governments to finance deficits. Again, this is a safe investment until it is taken to excess. Soros said in a Newsweek interview, "The situation is about as serious and difficult as I've experienced in my career." (Jan. 30, 2012, p. 53). The U.S. is also borrowing money to make an unprecedented national debt.

This effect shows the difference between social science and physical science. In physical science, discovery of a pattern or a natural law can be exploited and the law doesn't change. With social science, discovery of a pattern causes people to change the pattern. As a result, the pattern can cease to be true, except historically.

Soros pointed out this problem, but there is a certain irony in Soros's description of his ideas. He puts them in terms of physical science, using terms such as "equilibrium" and "feedback," and he even develops a "human uncertainty principle," in analogy to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle. This doesn't seem to be unusual in the social sciences. Soros writes, “Economists in particular suffer from what Sigmund Freud might call 'physics envy.'” But the human uncertainty principle, as he describes it, is quite different from the physical one, because humans intentionally act to completely change the observations. Putting this effect in terms used by physics is simply misleading, because physics doesn't have such a problem. Soros comments, “The alchemists made a mistake in trying to change the nature of base metals by incantation. Instead, they should have focused their attention on the financial markets, where they could have succeeded.”

Regardless, the ideas that Soros discusses are interesting and relevant to current problems. In the second chapter, he discusses financial bubbles and the reason that government regulation is necessary to establish rules in financial markets. In the other chapters, he discusses the difference between markets and politics and why they should have different systems of operation. If you are wondering why financial deregulation doesn't work and why free market rules don't apply to politics, this small book is worth reading.


This article was previously published in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Unsafe Spaces Tour panel at American University this month

By Mathew Goldstein

Spiked magazine is sponsoring a series of Unsafe Spaces Tour panels at different universities, including Rutgers and Harvard.  They claim they are trying to promote "the humanist case for free speech". Tickets are free.  On September 28, there’s a panel at American University (Washington, D.C.) on “Feminism, sex, and censorship on campus” featuring Nadine Strossen, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Ella Whelan, and Robert Shibley.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Darwin substitute for Lamarck?

By Mathew Goldstein

Why do animals and plants appear to be well adapted to their environments?  Lamarck had an answer that appears to make sense.  Environmental changes promote behavioral changes which promote corresponding structural adaptations in animals and plants that are transmitted to offspring.  However, Lamarck's hypothesis contradicts the prevailing theory that natural selection acts on random genetic mutations. The post Darwin discovery of genes defeated Lamarck's theory while simultaneously demonstrating the validity of much of Darwin's theory.  Yet there is still some wiggle room here for a superficially Lamarckian, non-random component within the prevailing, random mutation, framework.

Maybe natural selection acts on random mutations to produce outcomes that appear Lamarckian because environmental changes impact particular genes differently.  Particular genes can be stimulated by an environmental change.  Maybe the rate of mutation on stimulated genes increases relative to the rate in genes unaffected by the environmental change.   Because random mutations in that gene are more likely to occur more quickly than would otherwise be the case, the likelihood of a rare beneficial mutation also increases.  Natural selection then favors the rare beneficial mutation in the overall population.

When cells replicate their DNA, the replication by transcription mechanism sometimes stalls. Sometimes, when a stalled replication resumes, a gene sequence is deleted or extra copies of it are made.  A combination of factors could make these copying errors more likely to occur for those particular genes that are actively responding to environmental stresses, so that those particular genes are more likely to show copy number variation.

I read that there is some evidence that "adaptive mutation" of this sort could be occurring in microorganisms.  For example, there is more copy number variation of the copper-resistance gene CUP1 when it is stimulated by environmental copper.  When CUP1 was modified by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Houseley, a specialist in molecular biology and genetics at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, to react to a non-toxic sugar instead of to copper, an increase in copy number variation result was again seen after the modified CUP1 gene was stimulated by that environmental sugar.  

There is substantial skepticism that adaptive mutation plays a significant role in evolution among biologists.  More and better evidence for stimulated gene localized copy number variation, and a mechanism that translates stimulation of a gene into a higher mutation rate, will be required for this speculative hypothesis to be accepted.  Efforts to prove or disprove adaptive mutation in microorganisms may accelerate as a result of the recent positive CUP1 gene results.  If biologists one day determine that adaptive mutation is true, and probably had some role in humans being one branch on the primate tree, then will more people put aside their religious beliefs and accept that humans are ancestors of microorganisms?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Over there and over here, one difference

By Mathew Goldstein

We collectively make our history.  Human history has its ups and downs.  Our legacy is not particularly good overall, there are many ugly events to relate.  We should not be proud of our history, it is too often shameful.  We need our history, for its pains and glories, and it's ambiguities too, as lessons.  From history we can learn about what not to do, sometimes about what to do, to locate a better future.  From the past we select what history we value when we name our airports, towns, and highways, and who we honor with memorial statues in our public places.  

Having lived my youth in the northeast, I found little difference overall following my move south to the mid-Atlantic past the Mason-Dixon Line.  The Swatztikas on the local train tressle and etched into the public school desks and library cubicles, the German language "Juden" graffiti in black paint on my high school, my immediate neighbor with a pick-up truck whose rear window was covered by a Confederate battle flag, over there.  New co-workers who made a point of telling me that they supported David Duke, the Swatzikas drawn inside a cave, on a motorcyclist's helmet, drawn on the downtown street signs, and building walls, over here.  

However, there is a difference. Here, but not there, the names of Confederate generals were part of the public infrastructure.  Those Confederate generals endorsed, and fought to preserve, commercial kidnapping and enslaving of Africans, many of whom were killed as a result, and whose ancestors live among us today.  The Civil War history was not a part of my life.  My European Jewish ancestors came here during and after WW I, fleeing the anti-semitism that later morphed into the mass murder of Jews who remained in Europe.  Yet this history, both on the Nazi and Confederate sides, kept announcing itself uninvited in odd places and contexts where it did not belong, strangely introduced and repeated by people with crayons, ink, knives, paint, flags, and words.  But with the highway and place names for Confederate war heroes here only.

The people of Charlottesville, like all towns, decide for themselves what history they want to associate themselves with.  They acted reasonably and responsibly when they decided to remove a statue of a Confederate general from their town park.  Among the decisions our local governments face, whether or not that statue resides in a park is not a particularly pressing national concern.  This is primarily a concern for the people living in those towns.

The people with torches and battle flags who thought the public display of this particular statue was so important that they traveled from all over the country to demonstrate for keeping the statue in that park have misdirected priorities.  Adding or removing a statue does not establish, change, or erase the history.   The overreaction against the removal of the statue is evidence that such statues and place names are not innocent and academic placeholders for history.  They are deemed by caucasian, and some Christian, supremacists, such as David Duke and his followers, as representing a positive history that we should emulate, as endorsing traditional attitudes and policies that we should identify ourselves with today.  Instead, more towns and states should follow the positive trend of removing the Confederate war hero statues and place names.  Their essential place is in our history books.  They need not be, and should not be, the statues in our parks or our place names.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Word for the Lower Middle Class

By Bill Creasy

The 2016 election of Pres. Trump seems to have happened because of support from lower and middle-class voters, predominantly white and religious ones. Democrats have been advised that they should try to talk to these groups, or they won't win future elections.

This kind of "conventional wisdom" changes every four years. For example, it changed dramatically since 2012 when Obama was reelected, when it looked like Democrats had a majority for the foreseeable future based on the minority voters.

But lower and middle class voters have valid reasons to worry about the current economy (and, increasingly, all classes and races should worry). But some are looking at their problems in terms of ideas that are contradictory and inconsistent. If they want to solve the problems, they need to work out these contradictions. They need to have a realistic perspective on their place in the world and who they are competing against. They need to understand what the government can and can't do for them.

People with less education than a college degree are worried that well-paying jobs are becoming less common. Some of these jobs are manufacturing jobs, and factories are moving to other countries that pay lower wages. In that way, they are competing against low-wage people in developing countries who may have less education but who are just as good at doing routine, repetitious procedures.

Many jobs are also disappearing because of automation, as specialized machines are built that can perform repetitive tasks even more cheaply and reliably than any human can. The factory owner makes a capital improvement to the factory and improves its efficiency so that fewer human workers are needed. The owner gets richer by spending less on labor and makes more products with fewer employees.

No one should be nostalgic about how great these jobs are. Many were boring, stressful, and required no creativity. Coal mining and assembly line work, for example, aren't fun. Given a choice, no one would probably choose to do them. Some of the jobs were well-paid, but only because generations of union members protested and participated in strikes against large companies in order to get better wages and benefits, like paid health insurance or paid vacation. 

Manufacturing jobs are being replaced by service jobs. Union membership is declining. It is more difficult to strike against service employers for higher wages, especially when they are small companies that are competing against other small companies down the street. Striking against one simply drives customers from one business to another. The advantage is that most of these jobs can't go to another country, because they have to be done face to face.  But they are slowly being automated by replacing people with computers or self-service terminals. So wages have stagnated and many employers don't offer benefits. 

This, in a nutshell, is the current situation, and it isn't likely to change for the better by itself. There are many exceptions, since there are specialized jobs people can learn, and there are still small businesses that are being started.  But overall, good jobs are harder to find.

Often it is necessary for a family to be supported by two wage earners, or else children are raised in poverty. If they are raised in poverty and without resources to get an education, they are likely to remain as low income and become increasingly worse off. These effects seem to be reinforcing the class and income levels in the U.S. In spite of the American Dream, rich people get richer, and poor people stay poor. Economic trends support these effects. 

Low income people are right to be concerned about these trends from recent years.  Trump made an effort during his campaign to talk to angry, low-income people. He attracted rallies full of angry people by pointing out the trends that have been developing for decades.   They responded by assuming he was sympathetic to them and would do something to address their concerns.

What can be done? Low-wage employees need enough perspective to understand what competition they are up against, or they will never make informed choices.  Some people are reacting in ways that are doomed to fail. The most obvious recent mistake was voting for Trump. It was clear from Trump's speeches that he didn't have a good understanding of the problem or any concrete plans that would work. His solutions to the problem are useless.  He suggested slogans as solutions that have been tried during the past decades and rejected as simplistic. Building a "big wall" on the Mexico border won't keep jobs in the country. There is little evidence that international trade treaties decreases the number of jobs, and they may actually create jobs. (These things can be hard to measure. There are winners and losers.) 

Ever since the Reagan Administration, low income people and people from southern states have allied with the Republican Party. There are indications that this alliance had to do with reaction against the Civil Rights Act, from which the Democratic Party became associated with politically liberal and minority groups. Perhaps the low income whites simply wanted to associate with wealthy people, hoping that the wealth and good fortune would rub off on them. But the evidence that tax benefits to help wealthy people ever "trickled down" are weak. Wealthy people behave in ways that are generally for their own benefit, as would be expected.

If low income people want assistance with their problems, government is the only entity that can reliably help. The government can set up laws and regulations that blunt the impact of pure capitalism, which is almost guaranteed to favor people who are already wealthy.  But the right kinds of well-thought-out regulations are needed, not just slogans.  Regulations are imperfect, and they will make some winners and some losers.  Low income people will need to demand the particular help that they need.

The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is a good example.  As fewer people receive health insurance from employers, they will need to get insurance for themselves and their families.  Otherwise, they will not receive adequate health care, and the U.S. should be able to provide health care to its citizens.  But the system to provide this insurance to low income people will require government subsidies and taxes on the wealthy.  The system won't be simple or easy to implement.  It has been encouraging to see that citizens have been willing to protest to protect this program.  Hopefully, it will be gradually improved to make it fairer and work better without being repealed. 

Experience from the past century shows that the government can create programs that are good for some things, but may not be good for others.  The government isn't particularly good at creating excess jobs to achieve full employment.  Expecting the government, or the president, to create jobs for "everyone" is probably not going to work well.

The government can create jobs for specific projects that have defined goals, like national defense or infrastructure projects.  It can implement social programs like Social Security and Medicare that private companies have trouble doing.  It can fund basic scientific research that leads to long-term benefits.  Finding the right kind of program to address job losses will be a challenge, but it can be done, as long as affected citizens ask for it in a realistic way.

For better or worse, government works by taxing to take money by force and redistribute it to try to solve social problems. It doesn't have a magical ability to generate business or make productive, meaningful employment.  But that doesn't mean that it should be rejected or dismissed by those wealthy people, like Trump, who can't understand why social problems exist, because they haven't personally experienced them.  There are times when capitalism simply doesn't provide the best mechanism for keeping society healthy and functional.  If it doesn't, then we must think and act to fix it.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

CFI opposes efforts to penalize critics of Islam

Kudos to the Center for Inquiry, and their board chair Eddie Tabash, for calling out the radio station that invited Richard Dawkins for an interview about his new book (Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist) and then obnoxiously cancelled their interview without notifying their invitee (it appears that they never even attempted to notify Dawkins that they had cancelled the interview with him).  The CFI characterizes the radio station's unbalanced accusation against Mr. Dawkins as "unfounded allegations", which comports with my understanding that the radio station did not provide support for their accusation, and notes that the radio station's "stance is like the justification nations use to defend their blasphemy laws".  The radio interviewer could have confronted Mr. Dawkins with the allegations against him during their interview, which appear to be unrelated to his book that they had agreed to discuss, to give him an opportunity to respond.

Subsequently the radio station cited this "most evil religion" quote about Islam as an example of his abusive commentary that justified their canceling the interview:

“It’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” he added.

“If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

“It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.

“They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, Isis and the Iranian regime.

“So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country. That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.”


At the Secular Conference in London, all guests and speakers, some of whom are likely to be called "apostates" because they are secular Muslims or former Muslims, were instructed not to share the location of the event to non attendees due to security concerns.  Indiscriminate endorsement of "Islamophobia", and "abusive speech" against Islam complaints, directed against people who are interdenominational with their dislike of counter-evidenced beliefs, like Richard Dawkins, in today's world were we face these related, ongoing, threats by people who fancy themselves to be defenders of Islam, is not going to take us anyplace we want to go.  The people making these threats recognize when their threats are affective in intimidating people which is a positive outcome from their perspective.  There is no destination in the direction of endorsing such unbalanced accusations that will ultimately satisfy the people behind such accusations short of jail or violence targeting almost anyone who is judged by a theocratic standard to have insulted the "true" religious beliefs, because that is where the profoundly illiberal logic of such automatic rejection of almost any public expression of criticism of Islam takes us.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Evidence for string theory and atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

String theory posits that the particles and forces that physicists detect using machines are vibrating, string shaped units of energy embedded in a universe that is multi-dimensional.  Like most of science, this theory is non-intuitive and counter-intuitive to us.  Not in a million years would any philosopher, or theologian, or science fiction author, have invented string theory by reasoning primarily from their intuition, instead of from following the empirical evidence. It can be difficult, even for the scientists themselves, but especially for non-scientists like me, to grasp the concept.  The pervasively non-intuitive and counter-intuitive quality of modern theories regarding how our universe functions is important.  This tells us that we must rely on empirical evidence, and the consensus of experts when possible, not on our intuition, because our ignorant intuition is incompetent and more likely to be a counter-productive obstacle than a productive tool for understanding.

Electrons have a property called spin that either has the same, or opposite, direction as the direction that the electron travels.  According to string theory, the electron spin can flip directions in the presence of a strong gravitational field and magnetic field, such as near the event horizon of a black hole.  Theorists have concluded that in some contexts a temperature gradient can substitute for the gravitational field.

Recently, several IBM scientists, interested in exploring the possibility of deploying new types of materials for building future electronic devices for their employer, decided to test if they could observe a change in behavior of electrons in a semimetal that they were studying.  Semimetals are intermediate between conductive metals and semiconductors.  If string theory is true then a temperature gradient and strong magnetic field applied to the semimetal will break the spin symmetry conservation property of the electrons residing in the semimetal and produce a measureable current.  The IBM scientists succeeded in verifying this prediction, see http://m.ibm.com/https/www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2017/07/scientists-observe-gravitational-anomaly-on-earth Scientists Observe Gravitational Anomaly on Earth.

So what is the point of this post?  String theory, like most of modern knowledge about how the universe functions, is relevant to the theism versus atheism disagreement.  String theory, like all physics, chemistry, biology, etc., is thoroughly naturalistic.  String theory translates into mathematical equations that express the logic of physical, material, mechanical processes.  All of modern knowledge regarding how our universe functions is derived from naturalistic methods and reaches conclusions that are naturalistic.

Humanity did not begin the pursuit for knowledge preferring naturalistic methods and explanations.  We got pulled towards naturalism despite a long standing preference for supernaturalism.  This distinction is not binary, it is a continuum, and there is no measuring device.  Naturalism imposes constraints that reduces the options available to explain and people, wanting explanation, tend to consider the naturalism constraint to be too restrictive.  Yet the naturalism versus supernaturalism contest outcome lopsidedly favors naturalism, it is not a close call.  Time and time again, at all levels of focus from the smallest detail to the largest generality, there is opportunity for either more naturalistic oriented or more supernaturalistic oriented methods to be productive, and for either naturalistic favoring or supernaturalistic favoring conclusions to be successful.  Unrelentingly, over and over again, only the more naturalistic oriented methods are productive and only the naturalistic favoring conclusions are successful.

Several hundred years ago it was reasonable for well educated adults to endorse supernaturalism.  Science eventually abandoned supernaturalism because of its track record of total failure.  Today, theists, and non-atheist agnostics also, are downplaying, ignoring, and disregarding the pervasiveness, consistency, and diversity of the evidence for naturalism.  Many agnostics and theists who can be very good at respecting and following the empirical evidence in their professional and non-professional lives, nevertheless fail, apparently unwittingly, to apply that same rational standard to this question.  If they did apply the same rational standard of attending to the overall available evidence, as they otherwise routinely do every day, instead of myopically focusing narrowly on lack of knowledge trivialities and mysteries, and carefully avoided the mistake of placing personal preference or intuition over evidence, then they would be atheists.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Summer 2017 emails to Congress

By Mathew Goldstein

Send your emails using the forms provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and/or Secular Coalition for America and/or Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Or call or write letters.


The "Johnson Amendment" is the commonly utilized name for a law that prohibits nonprofit charities (religious nonprofits are automatically categorized as charities) that are financed with tax deductible contributions from endorsing political candidates.  Houses of worship (a.k.a. "churches"), their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of houses of worship, are the only nonprofits that not required to file an IRS tax form (or at least a Form 990N declaring that their income is under $50,000).  IRS Form 990 discloses basic information about a nonprofit’s expenditures and sources of revenue.  Because houses of worship are exempt from this crucial transparency requirement, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would effectively allow houses of worship to function like invisible Super PACs and unleash a wave of religiously motivated ‘dark money’ into the political system.  Full repeal of the Johnson Amendment is the Religious Right's #1 priority.  Ask your members of Congress to safeguard this important law that acknowledges the fact that political campaigns are not a charitable activity and therefore should not be funded with tax deductible contributions (under current law, non-profits that are funded with contributions which are not tax deductible can legally support political campaigns).  Also, please ask them to eliminate the IRS Form 990 exemption for houses of worship.

The Do No Harm Act has been reintroduced in the House.  This bill would restore true religious freedom by amending the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to ensure that religion is not used as a license to deprive some people of their secular civil rights.  Privileging religious beliefs will continue to erode progress on civil rights until Congress draws a line in the sand.  Tell your members of Congress to restore the meaning of religious freedom as a shield to protect individuals of all faiths and no faith, not as a weapon for people to impose their religious beliefs on others who reject those beliefs, by co-sponsoring the Do No Harm Act, and thank Congressmen Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA) for introducing the bill. 


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, and a review of reviews


Reviewed By Bill Creasy

At a recent meeting of the Human Values Network, we used a review of Yuval Harari's book Homo Deus, called "In a robot showdown, humanity may happily surrender" by Matthew Hutson, Washington Post, March 9, 2017, as a starting point for a discussion. Harari's book is a discussion of the future of humanity in response to advances in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. The review of the book raised some interesting as well as irritating issues, so I will point out the issues from some of the other reviewers as well as from myself. The reviews of the book have interesting points by themselves. Also, it's easier for me to be critical by quoting someone else. For example, this is a comment by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker about the book: "with Harari's move from mostly prehistoric cultural history to modern cultural history, even the most complacent reader becomes uneasy encountering historical and empirical claims so coarse, bizarre, or tendentious." I wouldn't be able to top a comment like this.

To be fair, there are many ideas in the book that are sensible and justifiable. Harari's previous book, Sapiens, was a capsule description of the history of human civilization. This book continues that story with a summary of the past, consideration of the present society, and speculation about the future of humanity. According to Harari, most of human history and prehistory has been a fight against the triple problems of famine, pestilence (diseases and plagues), and warfare. To a large extent, these problems have been solved, at least to the extent that we humans decide to solve them. We know what to do to solve the problems, and we aren't at the mercy of random events that we have to attribute to a deity. This is a recent development. The author has a belief in progress and that the progress will be driven by science and technology. The principle of evolution is a starting point for his arguments. 

So the question is, what will people be concerned with in the future that will have the same importance as the struggle against famine, pestilence, and warfare? The book is an effort to ask this question, but the answers are less satisfactory. Part of the problem is the basic issue of describing the past as opposed to trying to predict the future, which is obviously more difficult. However, the book is witty and well-written, and there isn't much technical jargon, so it provides food for thought. I'm particularly interested in the way he talks about the following four issues.

I. Harari's humanism
The major issue for Humanists (with a big “H”) is Harari's ideas about, or definition of, humanism (with a small “h”). Harari wrote that "humanists worship humans" (Chap. 2) . The statement is questionable on its face, since most Humanists would disagree. But this is a statement that is hard to interpret. It appears that Harari means something new for the purpose of his argument.

According to a review by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker,
"'Humanism,' for instance, ordinarily signifies, first, the revival of classical learning in the Italian Renaissance... to place a new value on corporeal beauty, antique wisdom, and secular learning.... By 'humanism' Harari means, instead, the doctrine that only our feelings can tell us what to do--that 'we ought to give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth.'”
A reviewer called Flatiron John on Amazon.com is harder on Harari, saying, 
“He really dislikes humanism: he inaccurately states its tenets, and then repeatedly mocks it (for example, as promoting indulgent consumerism and sex). He claims that humanism is what is giving rise to an emerging cybernetic dystopia.... Harari is abusing the word 'humanism,' as a canvas on which to paint his caricature of modern liberal culture ('liberal' in the classical sense, not in the sense of left-wing politics). He is not really interested in what humanist writers and philosophers have actually said, and does not reference their works. He claims that humanism promotes the belief in a supernatural free will (when in fact, humanists value agency and freedom, but have differing opinions on free will). He claims that humanism believes in an indivisible self/soul (when in fact, psychologists since Freud have a different understanding). And he claims that humanism believes that individuals always know best about their own needs (when in fact, many have emphasized the importance of education in our development--he does not even reference John Dewey).”
Harari wrote in addition about humanism, 
"In fact, humanism shared the fate of every successful religion, such as Christianity and Buddhism. As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects. All humanist sects believe that human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning, yet they interpret human experience in different ways."
 According to Harari, the three rival branches of humanism are orthodox humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism. Then, even more strangely, he reinterprets the history of the 20th Century as a conflict between these three branches. Orthodox humanism represents liberal democracy, socialist humanism is Soviet communism, and evolutionary humanism is Nazism and Fascism. It goes without saying that no modern Humanist (with a capital H) would claim that communism or Nazism are part of humanist thought. Yet Harari's definition is broad enough to encompass them. 

The reviewer Rod Dreher wrote “Three Rival Humanisms” in The American Conservative (March 28, 2017) with this quote from Harari, and there is a long discussion in the letter column following his article that includes thoughtful conservative and Christian humanist points of view. 

Harari avoids jargon from terms with specialized meanings, but instead he redefines common terms to mean something that most people wouldn't agree with. He uses the term “humanism” differently than anyone in the Humanist movement would use it. No Humanist would say that humanism has “factions.” In some ways, his definition seems a little condescending, as if he is trying to distance himself from being a part of humanism. For example, he writes seriously about whether animals have real emotions, but in the chapter on humanism, he only talks about human “feelings” as the measure of importance and meaning. Rationality doesn't seem to have much impact on his humanism. Instead, he uses humanism as a kind of cultural trend to use people's happiness or suffering as measures of good or bad actions. He has some interesting ideas along the way, and he gives an unusual perspective. But he uses very general, broad overview, and avoids the specific. 

It's not easy to know how to interpret Harari's ideas in terms of the movement of Humanism. But perhaps the lesson is simply this: humanism is a important term and an old concept, and if we want to control the term as a designation of the Humanist movement, we have to be careful about controlling the meaning and usage of the term. We have to criticize people like Harari who try to make it mean something else.
 
II. Religion
Harari has some clever words about religion. Again, he uses the term “religion” to mean something that most religious people wouldn't accept, to the degree that humanism can be classified by him as a religion. According to Harari, 
“religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” (Chap. 5).
 Harari redefines religion as a general worldview, but he eliminates a lot of common features of religion, like ritual and church organization. This may be one aspect of religion, but it ignores many other aspects that people think of as belonging to religion. In addition, it implies that there is something about humanism that involves superhuman legitimacy.

There are indications that Harari looks at religion in a flippant or condescending way. Nate Hopper quotes Harari in person in his Time magazine interview,  
“How might Homo sapiens find a sense of self-worth if technology can do their work better than they? One answer from experts is that computer games will fill the void. And they sound scary and dystopian until you realize that actually for thousands of years humans have been playing virtual reality games. Up until now, we simply called them religions.” 
 So his thoughts on religion have to be interpreted cautiously, with an effort to understand whether he is talking about actual religion or his definition of religion. That makes it particularly easy to take quotes out of context.

III. Future human goals
In the last third of the book, Harari describes some future scenarios for goals that humans may have. In general, he suggests that humans will seek after “immortality, bliss, and divinity.” These represent absolutist goals to continue the fight against famine, pestilence, and warfare, where immortality is the progress against death, bliss is the search for ideal happiness and satisfaction of our material needs, and divinity represents power and control over nature. Humans may never get to the ultimate achievement of these goals, but that won't keep people from trying or from making progress.

The book is weaker when discussing the technologies to use to make the progress. These involve some extrapolation of current technologies toward speculative or science fiction ideas: genetic engineering to produce humans with biologically superior physical or mental abilities, and artificial intelligence to produce evolving computers that could surpass human intelligence. Neither of these is a particularly novel idea, and not much is contributed from this book, either in understanding the technologies or in anticipating ethical dilemmas. For example, Ray Kurzweil and Gregory Paul, among others, have advocated for the development of artificial intelligence that may surpass human intelligence. Harari refers to these superior humans as the “Homo Deus” of the title, as if they become literal gods, even if they are perhaps only analogous to the Greek pantheon. But the use of the word “god” is unspecific and misleading, to go along with his definitions of humanism and religion. He proposes that “techno-humanism” will be a new religion, with humans still the center of philosophy and values but with technologically improved humans to replace the current variety. His idea of the goal of the future humans sounds like a theistic goal of bliss, immortality, and divinity, rather than practical progress toward these ideals with real technology.

Ashutosh S. Jogalekar wrote in a customer reviewer on Amazon.com
 “The problem is that Mr. Harari is an anthropologist and social scientist, not an engineer, computer scientist or biologist, and many of the questions of AI are firmly grounded in engineering and software algorithms. There are mountains of literature written about machine learning and AI and especially their technical strengths and limitations, but Mr. Harari makes few efforts to follow them or to explicate their central arguments. Unfortunately there is a lot of hype these days about AI, and Mr. Harari dwells on some of the fanciful hype without grounding us in reality. In short, his take on AI is slim on details, and he makes sweeping and often one-sided arguments while largely skirting clear of the raw facts. The same goes for his treatment for biology. He mentions gene editing several times, and there is no doubt that this technology is going to make some significant inroads into our lives, but what is missing is a realistic discussion of what biotechnology can or cannot do. It is one thing to mention brain-machine interfaces that would allow our brains to access supercomputer-like speeds in an offhand manner; it's another to actually discuss to what extent this would be feasible and what the best science of our day has to say about it.”
 The other possible future religion that Harari proposes is “dataism”, the idea that “the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing” (Chap 11). This is an interesting idea, but it is odd to think that the quantity of data is important, rather than the way it is processed into useful information. We can consider a website like Wikipedia, which is notable not for the quantity of information (even though it is large), but for the fact that it has well-organized, well-written, and comprehensive information. I recently heard a National Capital Area Skeptics lecture by Susan Gerbic, who is organizing a group Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, that is dedicated to increasing the skeptical content of Wikipedia entries. Adding to Wikipedia is certainly a calling or perhaps even an obsession, and it takes a librarian's interest in cataloging information so it's accessible. But it doesn't seem like a religion. (It may qualify as a religion under Harari's definition, but it's hard to tell.) So it isn't clear why “dataism” would appeal to anyone in any sense of the term religion. Why would it satisfy a human need for meaning in life? 

IV. Group Evolution 
 Group evolution can contribute to the questions that Harari addresses. Groups and organizations are important for human evolution, and they will continue to be important in the future. Large groups may become more important in determining the direction of future society than individuals. In some ways, individuals may have to tolerate inconveniences in order to keep society working well. 

Harari mentions the importance of groups and cooperation among humans in producing society. In fact, he discusses an interesting classification of information he calls “intersubjective”, in addition to objective and subjective information. Intersubjective information “depends on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans” (Chap.3). For example, items like money, language, and law are classified as intersubjective, since they don't exist unless many people use them. Harari makes the mistake of referring to these items as “fictions,” since they aren't objectively real in the same way as physically real objects. 

But this kind of information is the kind that is evolving in group evolution, so it is far from fictional. In fact, it is important to understand how this information is stored, passed along, and selected for. We probably need to know a lot more about that. 

David Runciman says in his review the The Guardian
“Harari thinks the modern belief that individuals are in charge of their fate was never much more than a leap of faith. Real power always resided with networks. Individual human beings are relatively powerless creatures, no match for lions or bears. It's what they can do as groups that has enabled them to take over the planet. These groupings - corporations, religions, states - are now part of a vast network of interconnected information flows.”
 But the importance of groups doesn't imply that individual humans are unimportant, that they don't matter, or that they are powerless to influence the future. Individuals are important, but not in the way that people may commonly think. We aren't cowboys who must fend for ourselves or our families. We are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not. We have to think of the best ways to get along, and there's nothing fictional about that. 

Individuals come up with new technologies and with new kinds of organization. More important, the new inventions only matter because a large number of people adopt them and find them useful. For example, the cell phone was developed and improved by a large number of people, and it influences current culture because almost everyone has gotten one. This doesn't indicate that individuals are powerless; it shows they have similar needs and adopted a new technology that helps to solve them. It also shows that humans pass along the “intersubjective” information that makes group evolution evolve and change. 

Group evolution indicates that the selection process will happen for many kinds of new technology. There may be new biological modifications that can be done on humans, as Harari indicates. The ones that will have the most impact will be the ones that are accepted by a lot of people, perhaps such as the ones that lengthen lifespan. But we can also imagine genetic engineering that will turn people blue or grow wings. But if these changes are not widely accepted, or if they don't solve a social problem, they won't make much difference. Some people may make the change out of vanity, or because they have a lot of money to spend on a luxury, but those with the alterations will be a small minority. This is the kind of selection criterion that group evolution can apply to a plan for the future which Harari should have tried to take into account. 

Artificial intelligence will likely make a significant difference, once the right kind of algorithms are developed. Again, the ones that will make a difference will solves a problem with the group. For example, modern economists are making an effort to understand a country's economy and how the distribution of money affects it. They try to make rules and generalizations to simplify the economy and to figure out how to understand it. However, a large enough artificial intelligence computer will not need to simplify the economy. It will simply keep track of all transactions by brute data processing. If a person loses a job because the job is obsolete, artificial intelligence can identify that person, find a related new job, and make sure the person is trained for it. Does this mean that the person is not in control? Not really, since they can refuse to do the new job. But artificial intelligence will solve a problem for them, if they want to solve it. This will be progress. 

It is likely that the artificial intelligence programs will start to evolve by themselves, since they will be too complex for human programmers. The real problem is setting up the artificial intelligence so that it will evolve toward the socially useful purpose. An AI shouldn't be designed to evolve for finding better ways to kill people; that would be a mistake. It might succeed too well. This isn't a small problem to worry about. The Department of Defense has a lot of money to spend on the problem of targeting “bad guys.” But if an AI gets smart enough, will it notice that it can be really difficult to tell the difference between good guys and bad guys? Will it decide that the bad guys are the ones asking it to kill people? Or will it just notice that there are really too many human beings alive to be supported comfortably on the planet, and things would be better with fewer people? From our perspective, these might be unfortunate conclusions for it to arrive at, if it has the power to do something about it. 

A lot of the current generation of internet technology is designed to keep people online and using the technology. Facebook is trying to keep people on, because that is the way that they make more money from advertising. Television programs, from the original ones in the 1950's to the current generation, are usually paid for by advertising, so they get paid for “eyeballs” of people watching. The programs are designed to keep people watching. Does this solve a real social problem? 

The AI may not need to be designed to act like a human being. We have enough human beings, why build more? But if robots can be built to perform jobs that humans are not really good at, they will probably be built and used. The problem is then finding things for the humans to do to earn a living. This isn't an impossible problem, as long as the robots are producing all the things that humans need. It is just a question of distributing the things, and then telling the humans that they can do whatever they want. Would that be so bad? 

V. Conclusion 
It is difficult to say that Harari's book is not good, since it has a lot of good information, it uses some good assumptions about the future, and there are a lot of interesting ideas. But it has limitations. It defines terms like humanism and religion in a way that isn't accurate and could lead to misunderstandings. The ideas “techno-humanism” and “dataism” are really odd ideas about what humans need to make life matter. Because it doesn't include group evolution, it doesn't have an important criterion for evaluating future changes. But the book provides food for thought, and that is not a bad thing.